What is a conscientious objector? A conscientious objector, or CO, is someone who refuses to go to war because it is against his or her conscience. You can think of a conscience as a sense of right and wrong. COs believe that it is wrong to go to war. They do not want to hurt or kill people. They do not want to join the military or support it in any way.
This web site will help you to understand the conscientious objector experience in Canada during the Second World War. Through pictures, words, and voices you will meet the men who chose to be COs. You will find out why they became COs and what happened to them during the war.
The web site will also raise some questions about what you believe and why you believe it. Canada has not been involved in a war where the government imposed military conscription since the Second World War, but it is important to think about what would happen if you had to make a hard choice like the conscientious objectors did.
If Canada did go to war, what would you do?
Don't answer now.
Look through the web site. When you are done, think about what you've read, seen, and heard. Then ask yourself the question again: If Canada went to war, what would you do?
What is a CO?What is a CO?
Canada is a wonderful country! Why would anyone refuse to defend such a great nation? Why didn't COs want to fight? Conscientious objectors refused to fight during the Second World War for many reasons.
One type of conscientious objector was someone who had compared the good and bad sides of war. This type of conscientious objector saw that the results of war are often worse than the evils that the war was intended to solve. Through careful, logical thinking, they saw that war was an enemy of humanity.
Another type of conscientious objector was the person whose heart, mind, and conscience were guided by religious principles. Most of the COs in Canada during the Second World War were Christians. COs believed that Jesus was opposed to the idea of war. As followers of Jesus, these Christians refused to go to war.
Nearly all of the 10,000 COs during the Second World War had religious motivations. Of these COs, over 7,500 were Mennonites. Who are the Mennonites and why did they become leaders in the Canadian conscientious objector movement? By learning more about Mennonites, we will better understand the CO experience in Canada.
What is a Mennonite?What is a Mennonite?
The Mennonites have not always lived in Canada. If we look at how they began, we will have an easier time understanding why they did not want to fight during the Second World War.
Mennonites trace their history back almost 500 years. They are named after Menno Simons. Menno Simons was trained as a Catholic priest, but as he read the Bible for himself, he began to see differences between the Bible and the Catholic church. Based on his understanding of the Bible, Menno Simons disagreed with many of the practices and beliefs of the Catholic church as he knew it. Around this time, other men and women also began to challenge the Catholic church. This movement is known as the Reformation.
Menno Simons made the Bible his only authority. He thought that all people should read the story of Jesus in the Bible and then decide for themselves how to live. When Menno Simons read the Bible, he believed that the example of Jesus was calling him to live a life of peaceful obedience. Simons emphasized the need for believers to dedicate their lives completely to God and to become disciples, or followers, of Jesus.
Canadian Mennonite Brethren Church leader Frank C. Peters, reflecting on his time as a conscientious objector stated
“From the beginning to the end of his life, Jesus grappled with the problem of force…. I can come to no other conclusions than that Jesus was the first Christian pacifist.”
[ Frank C. Peters, “Moderator's Corner”, Mennonite Brethren Herald, July 9, 1976 p. 19.]
The Mennonites knew that following Jesus completely was a difficult decision. For this reason, they did not baptize babies like the Catholic church did. In order to be baptized and become a member of the Mennonite church, you had to be old enough to understand the sacrifice you would have to make.
So far, we know that the Mennonites have certain beliefs that set them apart from many other Christians. What exactly did they believe, and how did they live such a difficult life?
Mennonite Faith in ActionMennonite Faith in Action
Mennonites were in constant danger because of their unpopular beliefs. Maybe you sometimes think differently than your family or friends. Can you imagine what it would feel like if someone tried to kill you for that? Would you be willing to suffer and lose your possessions to stand up for your beliefs? You would have to be very certain that what you believe is right.
To avoid this punishment, Mennonites and Anabaptists escaped to areas where they could hide and practice their faith. First this meant moving from cities into the countryside, but soon they spread all over Europe. From Switzerland and the Netherlands, they spread to England, Germany, Moravia, Poland, Russia, and America.
Many countries did not accept Mennonites as settlers because they would not serve in the army or participate in society. Other countries promised them that they could live in peace. The Queen of Russia, Catherine the Great, invited the Mennonites to come to her country. She was looking for citizens to live in some land she had just conquered, and she had heard that the Mennonites were excellent farmers. She offered them land and the opportunity to keep their language, their customs, and their religion. She told them that they wouldn't have to do any military service. Although the first years were hard, the Mennonite colonies in New Russia soon prospered.
Another group of Mennonites moved to Pennsylvania, USA, because the governor of that colony promised them freedom to live as they wanted.
Even though many people disagreed with them and persecuted them, the Mennonites survived by finding places where they could practise their religion in peace.
Why did they move to Canada ?
Early Mennonite Immigration to CanadaEarly Mennonite Immigration to Canada
The Mennonites, like many other people, came to Canada because they were looking for a better life. The first Mennonite to come to Canada came from Pennsylvania in the 1780s. These Mennonites had came to the United States during the 1600s and 1700s. Before that, they had lived in Switzerland. These settlers moved what is now the Kitchener-Waterloo area in Ontario. It is still a major Canadian centre for Mennonites.
The next large migration began in the 1870s. The Mennonites in south Russia had prospered, but the Russian government passed a law that removed the Mennonites' total exemption from military service. If they stayed in Russia, they thought they might have to serve in the military, something they did not believe was right. Instead of risking this, they looked for land in North America. One of the best places they found was in southern Manitoba, in Canada.
In Manitoba, the Mennonites received a large amount of land and the Canadian government promised them that they could have freedom of worship and would not have to do any military service.
Why would the Canadian government do this for the Mennonites?
The reason is that Canada was looking for good settlers and farmers to farm on the Prairies. Mennonites had earned a reputation for being hard-working, honest, and successful farmers. This deal was good for both sides. Canada got useful citizens and the Mennonites got land and did not have to perform military service. In fact, Canada's laws dealing with the peace churches go back to the early 1800s.
Immigration to Canada in the 1920'sImmigration to Canada in the 1920's
Just as Canadians are not all the same, Mennonites are not all the same. Over hundreds of years, various Mennonite groups separated from each other and spread out across the world.
In Canada, for example, the Mennonites came in several different migrations. The first one began in 1786, when about 2,000 Mennonites moved from Pennsylvania , USA, to Ontario. The next major migration was from 1874 to 1880. Over 7,000 Mennonites settled in Manitoba. The government wanted their skills as farmers, so it gave the Mennonites special rights. Canada promised the Mennonites that they would be allowed to practice their religious beliefs in peace and that they would not have to perform any military service.
Then, during the 1920's, another group of Mennonites started arriving in Canada. This group was also from Russia. During the First World War, the Mennonites in Russia had suffered bitter winters, famine, diseases, and bandits. They desperately wanted to leave. Between 1923 and 1930, around 20,000 Mennonites came to Canada.
The one catch was that the 1873 exemption from military service did not apply to this new group. What would these peace-loving Mennonites do if war came?
The Mennonite Situation Before the WarThe Mennonite Situation Before the War
What was the situation of the Mennonites in 1939?
In 1939, at the beginning of the Second World War, Canada had 111,000 Mennonites. Some Mennonites had lived in Canada for over 150 years. Some had lived in Canada for 50 years. Others had come more recently, and had lived in Canada for 10-15 years.
Canadian Mennonites were mainly a rural and agricultural people. Most of them lived on farms in isolated communities. The 1941 census, for example, shows that nearly 87% of Mennonites lived on farms or in small rural towns or villages. For the most part, they had succeeded in remaining separate from wider Canadian society. Not only were they physically separated, but they also had a different religion and many spoke a different language. During times of peace, most Canadians didn't even notice the Mennonites.
During times of war, however, Mennonites were the focus of attention for their pacifist beliefs. Mennonites did not believe that killing people was ever right, even in war. Mennonites believed that they should have a spirit of peace and love instead, even if it meant personal suffering and sacrifice. The army, as well as many Canadian citizens, wondered why Mennonites were not prepared to defend their country. Why, these people asked, should Mennonites be able to live in Canada without participating fully in Canadian life?
How would Mennonites react to this challenge? Find out in the rest of the website!
View additional material on Mennonite history before the Second World War.